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Dialog – Josephus on John the Baptist – Part 3b

October 4, 2014

Josephus (late first century Jewish historian in Roman employ) makes a much more substantial reference to John the Baptist and his work than he does to Jesus.  Do we know why?

Not really, but fellow blogger Brian LePort and I have been mutually exploring the topic, and related issues, in a series of posts.  We are digging out a few clues about that curiosity, and using Josephus’ comments toward figuring out some puzzling things about the connection between John and Jesus.  The exact nature of the connection and its implications are much more developed but yet far from clear in the New Testament (NT) itself.  It is the only other first century source we have about John, who was executed just east of the Dead Sea in about 28-30 C.E., around the time of Jesus’ coming to prominence.)

I encourage you to read the earlier installments of this “diablog”, through the links below.  Brian’s last post is also linked here.  And here is a brief summary of what we’ve covered so far:

  • Josephus seems favorable to John, believing him to have been a sincere preacher. (He does not suggest he was a “prophet” and neither he nor the NT suggest he had a healing or exorcism ministry like that of Jesus… rather Josephus emphasizes how John moved crowds and drew apparently a sizable following…. I’d say at least in the several hundred range, if not low thousands.  The larger number seems quite reasonable if one includes those who “came out” to wilderness areas to see/hear John but may not have been baptized or continued following.)

  • It is the size and enthusiasm of John’s following that Josephus suggests was the reason Herod Antipas (Jewish Tetrarch of the Galilee and Judea region) had him executed as a sort of “preventive” measure against a potential uprising, like several before and after the time of John… These were dangerous to both the Jewish or partially Jewish leaders of the region and to the Romans.  We often forget that the social-economic-political situation, intertwined with Jewish religious practices, was very unstable and fluid at the time.

  • Josephus seems to evidence some familiarity with the theology (underlying thinking) as well as the outward behavior of John in preaching and baptizing… a theology he, as a Jew and defender of Judaism, seems comfortable with.  It should also be noted that Josephus clearly made John as a person, and his teaching, sound more Greek/Roman than they were in their Jewish context.  This was his general approach throughout his historical writings.

These points, added to others we’ve made in the series so far raise a few important questions:

  • Was Josephus aware of but purposely leaving out what the NT repeatedly asserts was the main significance of John’s message and work: to introduce Jesus as Messiah and Son of God? (Josephus’ knowledge or motive is probably beyond answering and we will here soon pivot to a focus on what the NT says about John.)
  • The NT clearly presents the role, the person and the significance of Jesus as superior to John… that John’s main purpose and calling was to prepare the way for and elevate Jesus.  If this is at all an accurate picture, would it not be something Josephus would be aware of? (O.k… I think we can know something about Josephus’ knowledge, and have strong suspicion here.) While often selective in his reporting, he was one who apparently consulted many sources and does show a seemingly unbiased awareness of James as leader of the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem, and of Jesus himself. So he is not trying excise Jesus and his followers from his record, as one might suspect, perhaps reasonably.
  • If Josephus did not miss or gloss over something major, and John was largely independent of Jesus, why does the NT present him so strongly as existing just in order to prepare for Jesus and “decrease” while Jesus would “increase”? (John, as we will later develop from NT statements, clearly had an influence if not a serious “following” even outside of Israel decades later.) The implication of what Josephus says seems to be that John’s following and his influence was actually greater than that of Jesus, at least up to 93 or 94 C.E. when “Antiquities of the Jews” was written.  Now the context of his remarks is mainly the actions of Herod Antipas, not John as a separate figure to be expounded on.  However, Pontius Pilate was a similarly noteworthy figure who does get attention from Josephus (and other historical records) and yet Josephus does not mention Pilate’s role in the crucifixion of Jesus, or anything else about that event (suggesting it may not have been as “major” or noted at the time as the NT and Christian tradition suggests, or??… but I digress).

At the least, a consideration of this described situation of what Josephus does and does not say about John the Baptist should cause us to ponder more deeply what may be the reality of who John was and just how his teaching and following intersected with and influenced or aided Jesus.  For example, is it possible that John’s followers operated either parallel with or even in some kind of “friendly competition” with Jesus’ ministry or Jesus’ followers later?

Here are links to Brian’s previous posts in this series (followed by mine below):

Introduction (Part 1a)

Part 2a

Part 3a

Links to my prior posts in the series:

Part 1b (my own intro, response to Brian)

Part 2b

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